`Bring back the Satcoms'

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I think I know what's wrong with our educational system today: little kids have never had the benefits of Satcoms, the Saturday morning romps to the movies in the pre-television age. For example, the Satcoms taught budgeting long before courses would be offered to kids in school. Usually parents would provide a dime or 15 cents for the weekly rite-of-passage, but because the combined series of films lasted three or four hours, the youngster was forced to divvy out funds carefully. Maybe seven cents for admission, a couple pennies for initial refreshments, then the rest for a big gumball or two as the action of feature shows drained emotion and energy.

Patience was a big dividend from the Satcom experience. The first film was a serial, perhaps 20 parts in length. Each left the hero hanging over a cliff surrounded by 3 million enemies. No matter. One had to sweat the details until the next Saturday to find out what happened.

The feature movies, especially the cowboy sagas, had enormous educational benefits by introducing kids to management science. Virtually every one was set in areas where there were plenty of mountains and wide open spaces. But the heroes had inventoried every square inch of the territory, thereby making certain that the villains would come up short of their getaway. What is more, the films widened the vocabulary of kids with such words as tumbleweed, critter, dogie, posse, pardner, and sidekick. They also provided realistic and modest expectations from working hard: every cowboy seemed content with a chuck wagon that provided a plate of warm beans and a cup of cool, clear water.

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Perhaps the most significant bonus of the films for the developing adult was forbearance for all kinds of people. The heroes were scarcely monolithic: Roy Rogers was beady-eyed and thin, Gene Autry wide-eyed and a little on the chubby side, and Gabby Hayes living testimony that an old man without muscles, teeth, or a razor could warm hearts.

Finally, the Saturday morning outing helped to develop a sense of camaraderie. The kids whooped together when their favorite product line -- the blue cavalry -- came around the bend to rescue the heroes. Then during the scary movies, a sort of rotation evolved, with one kid assigned the task of keeping a heads-up attitude, while the others, quite literally, were permitted to duck the issue.

It's been a long time since my Satcom experiences, but I employ their lessons all the time, especially when someone gives me a hard time. First, I remain as gracious and as smiling as Johnny Mack Brown or all the Sons of the Pioneers. Next, I saddle up my thoughts and pretend to stow away a little beef jerky (or a big Tootsie roll) in case the confrontation is lengthy. And then I get ready to cut the villain off at the pass.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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